Cultivating new leaders in the humanities

Oxford University's Head of Humanities has outlined the need for more leaders across the humanities in a research paper published today (4 December).

Professor Shearer West's report, titled 'Humanities Research Leadership in Europe' and commissioned by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (LFHE), examines the challenges facing the humanities amid 'turbulent' economic conditions.

The paper, launched today at the British Academy in London, also explores the ways in which new leaders can be cultivated to maximise the potential of Europe's 'outstanding' humanities research.

Professor West writes: 'This stimulus paper considers the challenges to leadership in humanities disciplines in a changing European research landscape. While leadership in creative and performing arts has received some recent attention, there is much less research available on leadership in more traditional humanities disciplines.

'The humanities are a cornerstone of most research-intensive European universities but the lone scholar model of humanities research has been tested in recent years by more collaborative and challenge-oriented ways of conducting research, as well as the new demands and opportunities of digital technology and open access.

'The rapidity of these changes has provoked anxiety and defensiveness, whereas adaptability and new approaches to research leadership are required to ensure that the humanities continue to flourish through turbulent times.'

The report forms part of a series of LFHE stimulus papers designed to inform thinking, choices and decisions at institutional and system levels in UK higher education.

Professor West writes: 'The political, economic, social and cultural contexts for research in Europe have been in a turbulent period of transformation for the last decade.

'So the landscape is changing rapidly. Money for research is being squeezed; there is an increasing emphasis on interdisciplinary research designed to address global challenges; funding bodies are joining forces to lobby and share good practice; while traditional academies and Europe's older universities retain some long-established research customs.'

Professor West discusses issues including resistance to the 'science model' of research, writing that there are 'long-standing models of collaboration in the humanities which are not generically different from those of a science team ... A theoretical physicist is just as likely to adopt the habits of a lone scholar while testing quantum theories as a humanities researcher is to lead a postdoctoral team to create a database of Roman inscriptions.'

She also examines the launch of the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation project as a blueprint for future research in Europe.

Professor West concludes: 'The cultural predispositions and practices within humanities disciplines are strong, but unless we cultivate more leaders to take us through the changes I have outlined, we are in danger of being left behind. There are, however, some encouraging signs.

'There are many leadership capabilities required to realise the potential of these changes – some of which are entirely consistent with humanities cultures and others which require adaptation to the changed environment.

'However, if humanities are to provide more leaders to maximise the potential of our research in these turbulent times, tendencies to conservatism and pleas for differential treatment will need to be tempered.

'An understanding of how to manage, rather than resist, change is necessary and, as I have shown, this requires a significant amount of new technical skills and knowledge, as well as adaptability, imagination and vision.

'My view is that humanities in Europe are the best in the world. Our researchers already demonstrate a portfolio of activity from the curation of specialist knowledge to public engagement and the creation of digital infrastructures. We have taken a number of strides to adapt to the changes in the research landscape while retaining the integrity and quality of our disciplines. There is room for us to do even more.'

Founded in 2004, the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education provides leadership development services and consultancy to higher education institutions throughout the UK and internationally.